I knew there was a terrible flu epidemic near the end of what we now refer to as World War I. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 struck young people particularly hard, and killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, including an estimated 675,000 Americans, far more than the war. But what CAUSED what was perhaps the second deadliest disease outbreak in human history?
The EcoHealth Alliance’s Robert Kessler shares some facts:
“In researching his book The Great Influenza, John M. Barry discovered that in January 1918, a doctor in Haskell County, Kansas reported unusual flu activity to the U.S. Public Health Service. By March, that had spread to nearby Fort Riley. On the morning of March 11, an Army private reported symptoms of fever, sore throat, and headache. By lunch that day, more than 100 soldiers on the base had fallen sick.
“At the time, very little was known about viruses and their transmission. In fact, the very first virus – Tobacco mosaic virus – had only been discovered 26 years earlier in 1892.”
Interesting that the recommendations against contracting the flu were slightly different from a century later. “Wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply; do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”
Kessler notes: “Diet and exercise are, of course, essential components of our health, but a brisk walk isn’t going to do much when it comes to preventing a virus from hijacking a host’s cells and replicating itself. From Fort Riley, soldiers carried the disease to other American military bases and, eventually, the battlefront in Europe.”
That first wave wasn’t particularly virulent. But, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control: “In September 1918, the second wave of pandemic flu emerged at Camp Devens, a U.S. Army training camp just outside of Boston, and at a naval facility in Boston. This wave was brutal and peaked in the U.S. from September through November. More than 100,000 Americans died during October alone.”
Stanford University notes the awful effects of the flu epidemic worldwide: “It spread following the path of its human carriers, along trade routes and shipping lines. Outbreaks swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific In India the mortality rate was extremely high at around 50 deaths from influenza per 1,000 people. The Great War, with its mass movements of men in armies and aboard ships, probably aided in its rapid diffusion and attack.”
As the CDC notes, “Scientists now know this pandemic was caused by an H1N1 virus, which continued to circulate as a seasonal virus worldwide for the next 38 years.”
For ABC Wednesday